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“So What If the Syria Solution Is Messy”: President Obama Got Putin And Syria To The Table, And That’s What Matters

The U.S. came close (we are told, anyway) to bombing Syria in retaliation over the alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war there. Since then, democracy-challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped in, and is helping to broker a deal by which another bad actor, Syria, would give up its weapons.

That should sound like a pretty good outcome, if it works out. But in Washington, the conversation has been all about image and what has become known in Beltway speak as “messaging.”

President Obama has been criticized for looking weak – first, more than a year ago, for not being tougher on Syria, and now, for vocalizing his understandable reluctance to bomb a Middle Eastern country. He’s been accused of offering mixed messages, by saying the U.S. needed to enforce the “red line” against chemical weapons, but then saying he took no pleasure in doing so. He was criticized for thinking about bombing without consulting Congress, then chided as indecisive for listening to those criticisms and asking for Congress’s opinion (though not its advance approval, Obama was quick to note).

Then Putin wrote a critical op-ed in The New York Times, criticizing the U.S. for its assertion of “exceptionalism,” and saying the rest of the world had grown tired of being pushed around by America.

There is some legitimacy to much of this criticism. But the more important point is, so what?

Who cares if Obama didn’t deliver an unequivocal, we’re-going-to-bomb-them speech, especially if such a speech would lock us more securely into a wartime box? Was it the threat of an attack that got Syrian leader Bashar Assad to talk to Putin? Was it Putin’s desire to gain some level of legitimacy and credibility on the world stage that led him to talk to Assad? Was it Putin’s own concerns about chemical weapons being used by insurgents in his own country that led him to get involved? Who cares?

Being an adult, being a diplomat, and, yes, being a leader means staying focused on the final goal – not on how you got there. So what if Putin wags his finger at the U.S. in an American newspaper? He can bully us on Facebook if he wants. Does it matter, if the end result is Syria giving up chemical weapons without the U.S. having to risk American lives or spend American dollars to make it happen?

Obama had indeed gotten himself into something of a box by drawing a “red line” against chemical weapons (and it should be noted that many of his critics on the right were some of the ones pushing him to get tough on Syria). But Assad was in a box, too. He didn’t want to get bombed. He threatened retaliation if he was bombed – and didn’t really have much to back that up. But politically, he couldn’t be viewed as giving in to Obama or to Secretary of State John Kerry. His only face-saving measure was to deal with someone like Putin – an “imperfect messenger,” to borrow a phrase from Anthony Weiner. But Putin was probably the only person who could deliver it.

Style points do matter, sometimes. But they are not an end in themselves. Looking tough or decisive is not success. Getting rid of the chemical weapons is what will count as a win.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, September 20, 2013

September 22, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Shot Not Heard”: How President Obama Left The Neocons Feeling Foolish

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

–Winston Churchill, June 26, 1954

Before you make the mistake of taking President Obama’s most strident critics regarding the Syrian deal too seriously, ponder this: With few exceptions, those calling the Russian-American agreement to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s nerve gas arsenal a capitulation, a sellout, and a shameful retreat also think bombing Damascus wouldn’t have been nearly enough.

Nothing short of a boots-on American invasion of Syria would have satisfied these jokers. Prominent among them is Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who views the diplomatic breakthrough as “an act of provocative weakness on America’s part.”

McCain, who has vigorously supported all nine of the nation’s last three wars on about 316 TV talk shows, is never happy unless the U.S. is attacking somebody. Only violent solutions strike him as realistic. That’s probably the single biggest reason he never became president.

Then there’s Eliot A. Cohen, founding father of the Project for a New American Century, a now-defunct Washington pressure group whose messianic schemes for a U.S. empire stretching from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan inspired the Iraq War. Featuring such luminaries as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, to these geniuses, overthrowing Saddam Hussein was only the beginning. Next on their agenda was Iran, in case you wonder why the mad ayatollahs have been tinkering with nukes.

So anyway, just as President Obama was getting ready to ask Congress to endorse a punitive strike against Syrian chemical weapon sites, Cohen published a Washington Post column scolding Americans for their cowardice. The families of the war dead, he allowed, were entitled to their sorrow.

“But for the great mass of the American public,” he wrote “for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, ‘war-weariness’ is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world…Americans can change the channel if they find the images too disturbing.”

Got that citizens? Shut up, pay your taxes and avert your eyes.

Next the Obama administration pulled a large Russian rabbit out of its hat, leaving the neocons feeling foolish. For all the hugger-mugger about “red lines” and the White House’s odd decision to position a naval task force within striking range of Damascus before deciding to ask congressional permission, the end result was nevertheless remarkable.

Clumsy? Definitely. But it’s not a Bruce Willis movie; it’s a foreign policy.

“By hook or by crook,” Kevin Drum writes “Obama (a) raised the issue of Assad’s chemical weapons to an international level, (b) got Vladimir Putin (!) to take a lead role in reining them in, (c) got Assad to join the chemical weapons ban and agree to give up his stockpiles, and (d) [did] it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot.”

In other words, for all the nonsensical talk of “appeasement,” the very crafty President Putin and the Syrian dictator now own this deal. Meanwhile, U.S. military options remain unchanged. President Obama has bought himself considerable freedom of action.

Mike Tomasky has it right: “If Assad is mad enough to use [chemical weapons] again, Obama won’t mess with Congress or even Russia. He’ll be credited by most observers…for having shown restraint the first time, and more people will agree at that point that Assad must be punished.”

Then there’s Charles Krauthammer, the Post columnist who accuses Obama of “epic incompetence,” complaining that the Russians prefer to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. He worries that “Assad is the key link in the anti-Western Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus and Beirut to the Mediterranean.”

Hmm… Isn’t something missing here? Let’s go to the maps. It’s roughly 900 miles from Tehran to Damascus via, oh yeah… Baghdad. See, it’s precisely the U.S. invasion of Iraq championed by Krauthammer and his chums that created this supposedly scary alliance. Sectarian strife among Sunni and Shiite Muslims has erupted there at irregular intervals for almost 1,400 years. Shouldn’t these brilliant thinkers have thought of that before now?

So what do the Russians want? In a word, stability. Unlike the U.S., Russia has a large Muslim minority. Roughly 1 in 6 Russians is Muslim. Like the Tsarnaev bothers of Boston, MA, nearly all are Sunni. What Putin definitely doesn’t want is Chechen separatists getting their hands on nerve gas. Driving overland, Syria’s roughly as close to Chechnya as to Iran.

Can Putin be trusted? To do what’s good for Russia, yes. As President Obama explained to George Stephanopoulos, the Cold War is over. “I don’t think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do,” he said. “But what I’ve also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable.”

And he also quoted Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, September 18, 2013

September 19, 2013 Posted by | Middle East, Syria | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“This Is A War Crime”: The U.N.’s Syria Report Strengthens President Obama’s Hand

United Nations inspectors confirmed Monday that hundreds of Syrians who died in an Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus were killed with sarin nerve gas.

The highly anticipated U.N. report marks the first official conclusion by independent scientists that the victims had been gassed. “The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale,” Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said. “This is a war crime.”

Neither Ban nor the U.N. inspectors would say who committed the atrocity — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels fighting to topple him have accused each other.

The Obama administration and its allies, however, jumped on the findings, saying that only Assad forces had the capacity to carry out such a massive attack with chemical weapons — bolstering their push for a strong U.N. resolution to quickly seize and destroy Syria’s stockpile of deadly gases.

“The regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told CNN.

The U.N. inspectors, who visited the scene of the attack, also found rocket fragments indicating that the nerve gas had been delivered with two types of artillery-launched rocket — the M14 and the 330mm. Assad’s military has these big guns; the rebels don’t.

Furthermore, arms experts doubt that opposition fighters have the expertise to use these rocket launchers effectively, even if they have captured some from Assad’s army. “It’s hard to say with certainty that the rebels don’t have access to these delivery systems,” Dina Esfandiary, a chemical weapons expert, tells Britain’s Telegraph. “But even if they do, using them in such a way as to ensure that the attack was successful is the bit the rebels won’t know how to do.”

The timing of the U.N.’s assessment works in President Obama’s favor. The U.S. has just reached an agreement with Russia for the international community to take control of Assad’s stockpile — estimated at 1,000 tons of sarin, mustard gas, and other poisons — by the middle of next year. Secretary of State John Kerry is demanding a U.N. resolution that will leave open the option of using force if Assad doesn’t fulfill his promise to hand over his chemical arsenal, and the U.N. report will make it easier to rally other nations behind a get-tough approach.

If the Security Council fails to reach a deal, and Assad doesn’t hand over his chemical weapons, the issue could be thrust back into the hands of Congress, which was debating whether to authorize Obama to order missile strikes against Syria when the unexpected diplomatic push put military action on hold. The U.N. report gives Obama outside evidence to present to reluctant lawmakers to back up his accusations against Assad.

 

By: Harold Maass, The Week, September 16, 2013

September 17, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reflex Pacifism”: Why Peace Sometimes Needs Force

I have worked as a war reporter since 1993, when I sent myself to Bosnia with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a stack of notebooks. The first dead body I saw in a war zone was a teenage girl who was sprawled naked outside the Kosovar town of Suha Reka, having been gang-raped by Serbian paramilitaries toward the end of the war in 1999. After they finished with her, they cut her throat and left her in a field to die; when I saw her, the only way to know she was female — or indeed human — was the red nail polish on her hands.

I grew up in an extremely liberal family during the Vietnam War, and yet I found it hard not to be cheered by the thought that the men who raped and killed that girl might have died during the 78-day NATO bombardment that eventually brought independence to Kosovo.

Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation. That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end.

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

Of course, even the most ardent pacifist can’t deny that the credible threat of U.S. force is what made the Syrian regime at all receptive to a Russian proposal that it relinquish control of its stockpiles of nerve agents. If the deal falls apart or proves to be a stalling tactic, military strikes, or at least the threat of them, will again be needed. Already, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s denials have been troubling. His suggestion that the rebels turned nerve gas on themselves to garner the world’s sympathy reminds me of the Serb authorities who said the people of Sarajevo were mortaring themselves; it was just as unconvincing then as it is now.

The most common objection to strikes is that the United States is not the world’s policeman; we have poured our resources and blood into two long wars over the past decade, and it’s time for someone else to take care of those duties.

That is a very tempting position, but it does not hold water. The reality is that we have staked our military and economic security on making sure that no other country — including our longtime allies — has anywhere close to the military capabilities that we do. We are safe in our borders because we are the only nation that can park a ship in international waters and rain cruise missiles down on specific street addresses in a foreign city for weeks on end. And we enjoy extraordinary wealth because our foreign trade and oil imports are protected by the world’s most powerful navy. I find it almost offensive that anyone in this country could imagine they are truly pacifist while accepting the protection and benefit of all that armament. If you have a bumper sticker that says “No Blood For Oil,” it had better be on your bike.

The United States is in a special position in the world, and that leads many people to espouse a broad American exceptionalism in foreign affairs. Even if they’re correct, those extra rights invariably come with extra obligations. Precisely because we claim such a privileged position, it falls to us to uphold the international laws that benefit humanity in general and our nation in particular.

Iraq hangs heavy over the American psyche and contributes to the war­weariness, but the 2003 invasion was not an intervention to stop an ongoing conflict. It was an unpopular intrusion into the affairs of a country that was troubled but very much at peace. In that sense, it was fundamentally different from other Western military interventions.

The ethnic slaughter in Bosnia was stopped by a two-week NATO bombardment after well over 100,000 civilians died. Not a single NATO soldier was killed. After Kosovo came Sierra Leone, where a grotesquely brutal civil war was ended by several hundred British SAS troops in a two-week ground operation in the jungles outside Freetown. They lost one man. In 2003, the Liberian civil war was easily ended by a contingent of U.S. Marines that came ashore after every single faction — the rebels, the government and the civilians — begged for intervention. Not a shot was fired.

The civilian casualties where there were strikes were terribly unfortunate, but they constituted a small fraction of casualties in the wars themselves.

Finally, there is the problem — the pacifist problem — of having no effective response to the use of nerve gas by a government against its citizens. To one degree or another, every person has an obligation to uphold human dignity in whatever small way he or she can. It is this concept of dignity that has given rise to international laws protecting human rights, to campaigns for prison reform, to boycotts against apartheid. In this context, doing nothing in the face of evil becomes the equivalent of actively supporting evil; morally speaking, there is no middle ground.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people essentially one person at a time, which is clearly an abomination, but it is not defined as a crime against humanity. The mass use of nerve agents against civilians is a crime against humanity, however. As such, it is a crime against every single person on this planet.

President Obama is not arguing for an action that decimates the Assad regime and allows rebel forces to take over. He is not saying that we are going to put our troops at risk on the ground in Syria, or that it will be a long and costly endeavor, or even that it will be particularly effective. He is saying that he does not want us to live in a world where nerve gas can be used against civilians without consequences of any kind. If killing 1,400 people with nerve gas is okay, then killing 14,000 becomes imaginable. When we have gotten used to that, killing 14 million may be next.

At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide. It’s not a matter of how we’re going to explain this to the Syrians. It’s a matter of how we’re going to explain this to our kids.

 

By: Sebastian Junger, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 13, 2013

September 16, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Coherent”: The Right Works Backwards To Make Their Thesis Of Putin Look More Impressive

The Hill published a curious piece this morning with a provocative headline, “Putin gets his revenge on Obama.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the United States in the op-ed pages of Thursday’s New York Times was a revenge of sorts on President Obama. […]

The op-ed was the latest salvo in an open feud between Obama and Putin — one which the Russian appeared this week to take an upper hand when a last-second diplomatic proposal from Russia led Obama to ask Congress to call off votes authorizing strikes against Syria.

I’ll concede I’m not an expert in the nuances of international diplomacy, but the notion that the Russian president has exacted “revenge” on President Obama seems odd to me.

Let’s take stock of what happened this week: (1) the United States threatened Syria, a Russian ally, over its use of chemical weapons; (2) Syria then vowed to give up its chemical weapons; and (3) Russia has committed itself to the diplomatic process the United States wants, which is intended to guarantee the success of the Syrian disarmament plan.

So, Obama, at least for now, ended up with what he wanted, which was then followed with more of what he wanted. If this is Putin exacting revenge, I suspect the White House doesn’t mind.

Indeed, the op-ed certainly caused a stir, but let’s not exaggerate its significance. “Putin gets his revenge on Obama” sounds awfully dramatic, but I don’t imagine President Obama was reading the NYT with breakfast yesterday, telling those around him, “Putin wrote a newspaper piece? And it chides the United States? I’ve been foiled by my strategic better! Curses!”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill, “It’s a sorry state when we have to take our leadership from Mr. Putin.” What does this even mean? The U.S. told Russia we intend to do something about the threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons; Russia is now working on helping eliminate that threat. In what way does the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee sees Americans taking our leadership from Putin?

Peggy Noonan wrote of Putin’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning, “He twisted the knife and gloated, which was an odd and self-indulgent thing to do when he was winning.”

The possibility that the Obama White House is actually achieving its strategic goals with these developments is apparently unimportant — Noonan and other Republicans are too overwhelmed by the belief that Putin got his revenge by writing an unpersuasive and inconsequential op-ed in a newspaper.

We’ve talked a couple of times this week about the right’s increasingly creepy affections for Putin, a phenomenon that only seems to be getting worse. This morning, though, I’m beginning to see the elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts — the right decided in advance that Obama’s rival must be impressive because he’s Obama rival, so they work backwards to make their thesis look more impressive.

Just over the last few days, for example, Tucker Carlson heralded Putin for “riding to President Obama’s rescue” while Russia “humiliates the United States.” Charles Krauthammer added that it’s Putin’s government that’s “playing chess here with a set of rank amateurs.”

So, every development is then filtered through the conservative prism that says Putin is President Tough Guy Leadership. The Russian gently rebuked the U.S. in an op-ed? Then conservatives must be right about Putin’s impressiveness!

Again, this might be more persuasive if Obama weren’t getting exactly what he wants right now.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 13, 2013

September 15, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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